Interviewed on Fox News's "Fox and Friends," Trump appeared to imply at two different points that Obama was failing to address the threat of terrorism because maybe he didn't want to. Host Steve Doocy asked Trump why the presumptive Republican nominee had suggested on Twitter that Obama should resign. (Our emphasis added in bold.)
DOOCY: So, Mr. Trump, the president called for more gun controls. He also said it was terror and he said it was a hate crime -- but he did not say that it was Islamic terrorism. And for that reason, you say he should quit.TRUMP: He doesn't get it or he gets it better than anybody understands -- it's one or the other, and either one is unacceptable.
Later in the program, Trump went further.
TRUMP: I've been right about a lot of things. I don't want congratulations. What I want them to do is be tough and vigilant, our government. Look guys, we're led by a man that either is not tough, not smart or has something else in mind. And the something else in mind -- people can't believe it. People cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can't even mention the words radical Islamic terrorism. There's something going on. It's inconceivable. There's something going on.
Again, emphasis added. "There's something going on."
On the "Today" show, host Savannah Guthrie pressed Trump on those comments.
GUTHRIE: Just this morning on a different network you said about the president he doesn't get it or he gets it better than anybody understands. What do you mean by that?TRUMP: Well there are a lot of people that think maybe he doesn't want to get it. A lot of people think maybe he doesn't want to know about it. I happen to think that he just doesn't know what he's doing. But there are many people that think maybe he doesn't want to get it. He doesn't want to see what's really happening.GUTHRIE: Why would that be?TRUMP: And that could be. Because Savannah, Savannah, why he isn't addressing the issue? He's not addressing the issue. He's not calling it what it is. This is radical Islamic terrorism. This isn't fighting Germany, this isn't fighting Japan, where they wear uniforms.
An honest answer to Guthrie's second question from Trump, of course, would be that perhaps maybe Obama is a Muslim.
Trump regularly implies that there's an undercurrent of suspicion or conspiracy to decisions being made by his political opponents. In January, Wonkblog noted that this is a psychological trick on Trump's part. Quoting Kyle Saunders, who studies conspiracy theories at Colorado State University: "Trump is using the fact that, psychologically, humans are, in the face of these kinds of harrowing events, looking for explanations that satisfy our deep needs for order, certainty and control of the world around us. Trump is, for those who buy into his explanation, reducing fear and anxiety about the uncertainty of the world."
But he's also regularly suggested that there's more to Obama in particular than meets the eye. Trump's aborted 2012 presidential campaign was centered on raising questions about Obama's place of birth. In 2011, Trump made the link between Obama's purported "foreignness" and his religious affiliations explicit. That year, he told Fox News's Bill O'Reilly that perhaps Obama "doesn't have a birth certificate. He may have one but there's something on that, maybe religion, maybe it says he is a Muslim. I don't know."
That suspicion -- or the appearance of that suspicion -- is part of Trump's appeal to a lot of his supporters. A slew of polls have suggested that Trump supporters are more likely than other Americans to think that perhaps Obama is a Muslim. Two-thirds of people who held a favorable view of Trump in a May Public Policy Polling survey said they thought that Obama is a Muslim; 59 percent thought that Obama was born outside the United States. In a September 2015 CNN-ORC poll, 45 percent of conservatives said they thought Obama was Muslim -- compared to 29 percent of Americans overall.
There's no evidence that Obama's religion is anything other than what he says it is: Christianity. But religion is one of those things for which we have little choice but to take a person's word for it -- making it a perfect tool for conspiracy theories. Obama can no more prove he's not Muslim than you can prove that you love your parents. Sure, you can show all the ways in which you've expressed that love, but it's fundamentally intangible.
It's not clear where the line between dislike of Obama (also, obviously, prevalent on the right) and dislike of Muslims is drawn. Are people more willing to say Obama is maybe a Muslim because they are skeptical of both the president and people of that faith? A Pew survey taken in February found that half of Americans think that some or all Muslims living in the United States are anti-American -- including two-thirds of conservatives. A February NBC News-SurveyMonkey poll found that two-thirds of Trump voters dislike Muslim-Americans. Muslims are bad and Obama is bad, the thinking may go, so lumping Obama in with Muslims becomes a lot easier.
There are two particularly interesting things about Trump's comments on Monday. The first is that they're an unsubtle boost to the parts of his base, which many mainstream Republicans find disconcerting. That perceived foreignness overlaps with the racial discomfort that Trump has been able to leverage to his political benefit -- but which runs contrary to the direction his party was hoping to go. The second is that this is not the sort of argument that is likely to help Trump expand that base of support in a general election. Trump's winking comments are directed at people who largely already support him, and it's not clear that others will react positively. A plurality of respondents in both the CNN and PPP polls said that Obama was a Christian; for many, these comments are likely to reinforce the belief that Trump is unserious, biased or both.
We know that Donald Trump is confident (or says he's confident) that he can use the same strategy he used to win the primary to win the general election. We also know that attempts to change gears to transition to the general have, so far, been unsuccessful.
There are lots of reasons that Donald Trump's political position in the wake of the Orlando attack should be a strong one. (It was the Paris attacks that helped knock Ben Carson out of contention last fall, remember.) Trump is betting that his criticisms in the wake of Orlando don't need to substantially diverge from his criticisms of Obama over the past five years in order for him to parlay that position into an electoral victory.